The message was loud and clear. Residents living along the Long Island Rail Road's (LIRR) 11.5-mile Main Line Corridor do not - under any circumstance - want a third - or fourth or fifth - track installed. They do however, welcome the elimination of on-grade crossings in New Hyde Park (Covert Avenue, 12th Street and New Hyde Park Road), Westbury (School Street) and New Cassel (Urban Avenue) and believe that phase of the LIRR's highly controversial Main Line Corridor Improvements Project be tackled now.
In order to collect input from local communities for an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), the LIRR held its first of three public scoping meetings June 14 at Jericho Terrace in Mineola. Residents and elected officials alike - from several of the nine villages to be affected by the mega project - urged that the MTA/LIRR derail the third track proposal altogether.
The EIS will be prepared in 2006 while public hearings are slated for early 2007. The final EIS, which will document the elected course of action, is expected in the summer of 2007 with a record of decision anticipated later that year. Construction is not slated to begin until 2009, with an estimated project completion date sometime in 2016.
Many fear the increased running of freight along the Main Line is the underlying reason behind the possible third track installation, although Elisa Pica, LIRR's chief planning officer, assured otherwise. Others simply don't buy the projections that such an "improvement" will help accommodate increased ridership and reverse peak service, especially in light of the fact that increased fares recently went into effect to offset decreased ridership.
Moreover, people fear for their homes. As stated in the scoping document, prepared by DMJM Harris, the LIRR's environmental consultant, "some property acquisition may be necessary in order to construct a new continuous additional track and for some station area and roadway grade crossing improvements" although the LIRR anticipates that "most" of the Main Line Corridor proposed improvements could take place within the existing right-of-way.
Prior to a determination of which property must be acquired, analysis of the pros and cons of several approaches will be conducted as part of the evaluation of alternatives. County tax maps and data included in the project Geographic Information System (GIS) data set will be integral in assessing the approximate amount of land necessary for acquisition.
The scoping document further notes that property identified for acquisition, as part of the Draft EIS, may not ultimately be required in order to construct the project. Final decisions regarding property acquisition will be taken after the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) issues a Record of Decision (due out in late 2007). The final design of facilities will determine exact property needs and the needs will be verified with detailed survey data.
The area under study is one of the most densely traveled corridors in the region; it extends from Queens Village east to Hicksville. Stations in the corridor currently under evaluation include Queens Village, Bellerose, Floral Park, New Hyde Park, Merillon Avenue in Garden City, Mineola, Carle Place, Westbury and Hicksville.
The EIS will consider alternatives to meet passenger service needs - build alternatives and a no-build alternative will be evaluated. The build alternatives include different track alignments, including northern alignments, southern alignments and alignments that combine the two. LIRR officials do not know which alignment is likely at this time.
The no-build or "do nothing" alternative would eliminate construction of a third track as well as station and grade crossing improvements altogether. "This alternative will be used as a basis of comparison to understand the effects of the build alternatives," Pica noted.
The concept of adding another track to the Main Line is not new; talk has been circulating for years. Many suggested the MTA/LIRR take the money earmarked for the installation of an additional track and use it to begin eliminating the on-grade crossings.
Rosealeen Shea, co-chair of the Long Island Rail Road Committee in Bellerose Village, questioned the project's funding. "Floral Park Mayor Phil Guarnieri and State Senator Mike Balboni have their priorities right by urging the MTA/LIRR to undertake the elimination of grade crossings first and keep them completely separate from the third track mega project. The MTA/LIRR's own budget reveals that they are in fact two separate spending items.
"The grade crossings project is budgeted for $60.3 million in 2008 and another $20 million in 2009. The third track project is budgeted for $4.5 million in 2007 and another $117.8 million in 2009. In addition, the MTA/LIRR is only budgeting for its share of spending for the three grade crossing elimination's in the New Hyde Park vicinity. If funding gets tight, or if no other arm of government comes up with any missing portions for these grade elimination projects, there's no guarantee that the project's handful of grade crossings will in fact be eliminated," Shea continued.
Shea pointed out an even greater concern. "The MTA/LIRR only budgeted for Phase I, with its construction impacting neighborhoods from eastern Queens to Mineola, while Phase II, which targets Mineola to Hicksville, is not yet funded. Communities within the Phase I construction zone face the possibility that - despite being asked to endure years of construction, including the destruction of greenery and the condemnation of property - there is no lock box guarantee that Phase II from Mineola to Hicksville will ever be completed. The MTA/LIRR must focus on taking care of the facilities it has now rather than continuing to spend our taxpayers' dollars with such irrational exuberance," she said.
New Hyde Park Village Mayor Daniel Petruccio made the following statement:
"I appear today on behalf of the residents, business owners and daily visitors to the Incorporated Village of New Hyde Park.
"As is the case with many of the sister villages in attendance this evening, New Hyde Park is bisected by the main line of the Long Island Rail Road. This fact has had, over the years, a great impact on the development and functioning of our community. With an ever-increasing rail service, our village finds that the gates at our three grade crossings are blocking the flow of traffic for longer and longer periods of time, leading to safety concerns, congestion and a negative effect on our quality of life. New Hyde Park welcomes a plan which will consider the elimination of these grade crossings and the consequent improvement of traffic flow in our village.
"That having been said, however, it is important for our community to understand exactly what the MTA proposes with respect to grade crossing elimination and exactly what impacts upon our village, both positive and negative, will result from such a project.
"Since this evening's meeting deals with the environmental scoping of the proposed Main Line Corridor Improvements, I am compelled to make a few statements on behalf of the Incorporated Village of New Hyde Park.
"(1) In order to even think about the possible impacts of the proposed project, it is imperative that we know what the project is. What is the proposed track layout? What are the proposed treatments for each of the grade crossings in the village? Without knowing what is planned, we are unable to comment with any degree of accuracy upon the potential environmental impacts which may flow from the project. Such inability to comment with accuracy undermines the environmental review process and runs contrary to both the spirit and letter of both the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the New York State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA).
"(2) Without knowing the nature of the proposed project design layout, it is impossible for us to develop and evaluate alternatives to the proposal, requirements of a proper environmental review.
"(3) Inasmuch as the three grade crossings in New Hyde Park are significant points of current transportation conflict, I would like to propose that the elimination of these crossings be the subject of an independent environmental review. This undertaking would be totally consistent with your Notice of Intent to Prepare an Environmental Impact Statement, which reads as follows:
"Although the current plan is to evaluate all of the elements in the EIS, as the project elements are developed and schedules and construction phasing plans develop, it is possible that some of the independent elements may be advanced via separate environmental evaluations under NEPA.
"(4) In order for the village to appropriately examine the potential economic impact of the project, it is imperative that we have the opportunity to receive and evaluate a takings or condemnation map relative to what is planned. The analysis of the pros and cons of the different approaches to the project require an evaluation of the takings necessitated by each. I call upon the MTA to prepare and submit for review such a takings map.
"(5) The planned third track expansion through the village contemplates, by admission, an increased ridership. What are the projected parking impacts upon the village relative to the accommodation of increased ridership?
"(6) It is imperative that the alternate forms of transportation contemplated by the project be evaluated with respect to their impacts upon land use, the character of the community and noise. These impacts must be evaluated at the local level, village by village, neighborhood by neighborhood, block by block. In this connection, I urge you to revisit the comment contained in your Scoping Document at page 12 which reads:
"No significant neighborhood impact or community disruption is anticipated in association with the proposed improvements.
"The Incorporated Village of New Hyde Park will submit full written comments to the MTA concerning the scoping of the proposed project.
"For the time being, I offer this in conclusion: separate the grade crossing eliminations from the balance of the project. Move forward with the eliminations. Go back to the drawing board and create a plan, which we can see with our eyes. Only then will be be able to work with you to achieve a proper environmental evaluation."
Floral Park Mayor Phil Guarnieri, who also attended the 4 to 6 p.m. session June 14, spoke again later that evening to reaffirm the village's strong opposition to installing an additional track. "The so-called Main Line Improvements Project attempts to merge together the need for on-grade crossing elimination's with the unneeded construction of a third track.
"This erroneous linkage has led the public to become confused and misinformed. The on-grade elimination project is a completely separate item in the MTA's own budget. It also appears that the MTA will fund only part of the grade crossing elimination, rather than shoulder the entire cost of the project. If the MTA is truly concerned about grade elimination, then it should be done before any part of the mega project takes place. I believe that the MTA/LIRR's real purpose is to add a third track to run more trains and spend taxpayers' money. While few in Floral Park oppose enhancing the region's transportation infrastructure, we believe it should not be done on the backs and in the backyards of our residents ... If the MTA has taxpayer dollars to spend in Floral Park, they should use them to improve the facilities we already have, which are either inadequate or in disrepair ... the MTA/LIRR has burdened Floral Park more than enough. On behalf of all the village residents and their neighbors who live near the railroad right-of-way from Queens Village to Hicksville, we ask that this project be given the burial it deserves."
John Kennedy, president of the Nassau-Suffolk Building Trades Council, which represents over 60,000 construction workers, was the sole speaker who urged the MTA/LIRR to move the project forward. "Our members and their families are not only interested in the jobs that this proposed project will offer them but the reliable, clean source of transportation that will be available on Long Island now and in the future ... The dollars spent on this project that will employ our members will be returned to this region three times over ... Building at this time is an investment that makes economic sense."
Robert Burke, a trustee with the Floral Park-Bellerose School Board of Education and the Sewanhaka Central High School District Board of Education, said he found the presentation insulting. "Everything you said can be read on your website," he told MTA/LIRR officials.
Burke's comments were echoed throughout the evening in which residents appeared frustrated that no definitive information was ever provided. They'll have to wait for written responses from the MTA/LIRR, which will be provided after the comment period officially closes Aug. 31, nearly two months from now.
The MTA/LIRR held its second scoping meeting Thursday, June 16 at Floral Terrace in Floral Park and will hold its third Tuesday, June 21, at Antun's in Hicksville. All comments from each meeting will be entered into a project record. Additional comments can be submitted in writing to Peter Palamaro, LIRR Public Affairs, Jamaica Station, 1131, Jamaica, NY 11435, prior to Aug. 31. Visit www.mta.info/mta/planning/mainline for more project information and future project updates.